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Ralph Becker: The realities, challenges and solutions of homelessness in Salt Lake City and Utah

It’s Christmas, a time when we focus on our blessings, our family and giving to others. For the homeless among us, Christmas is another day for survival. To those who devote themselves to helping the homeless, thank you. For the rest of us, let’s renew our commitment to help people in need.

Using Point-in-Time measures (an annual standardized national comparison among cities and states), Utah has 2,807 people experiencing homelessness — the smallest number in 10 years. Due to the recent Great Recession and other factors, the makeup of our homeless population changed; today there are nine distinct subpopulations.

Community impacts, particularly in downtown Salt Lake City, have become a major regional issue. And the experience for the homeless, the providers and the affected public tells a different story from our statistical success. We see more unsheltered people on our streets, and because our homeless facilities in Salt Lake City are situated in our thriving downtown, the face of homelessness is exposed to all.

How does Salt Lake City compare in the severity of this challenge? Los Angeles counts 46,874 homeless people. Denver has 6,130, and Portland, Oregon, counts 3,800. Utah ranks 36th among all major U.S. cities for the size of its homeless population as a proportion of 100,000 residents.

All these cities face similar issues. In a November 2016 White House meeting on elimination of chronic homelessness among veterans, I related our Salt Lake City experience of making statistical progress, while continuing to see our homeless situation worsen. I noted that if we didn’t address the growing impacts among other populations of homeless, we would be stifled in addressing the larger issue. Every mayor attending the White House convening agreed.

Utah and Salt Lake City have been recognized nationally for success in addressing chronic homelessness, particularly among veterans. Our chronic homeless population is 168 people, down 92 percent since 2005. Utah has the third lowest chronically homeless population in the country. Thanks to our "Housing First" model, together with other resources, Salt Lake City and Phoenix were the first cities in the country to effectively eliminate veterans' homelessness.

In late 2014, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and I convened two parallel commissions to evaluate services, bring key stakeholders together and facilitate a consensus path forward.

After a year, the stakeholders arrived at a comprehensive approach. In Salt Lake City, focusing on facilities, Gail Miller and Palmer DePaulis led the stakeholder process, which included homeless individuals. After analyzing information, sharing ideas, exploring alternatives and listening to the public throughout deliberations, they reached consensus on creation of two or more new, scattered homeless facilities. They recommended that these facilities should not only house people, but provide a range of resources to address the precursors to and services needed to avoid homelessness and minimize sheltering in transient facilities.

Using the Collect Impact model, Salt Lake County arrived at a resolution called “Shared Outcomes,” an innovative approach to providing government services pioneered by Mayor McAdams. The project is proceeding with specific goals and program changes with providers and governmental entities.

In March 2016, the state Legislature committed $9.25 million as the first installment of a proposed $27 million to fund these initiatives over the next three years.

Salt Lake City has been slower to move forward, but it recently selected the sites for homeless facilities. Although she campaigned against the work of the commission last year, Mayor Biskupski ultimately agreed to adopt the commission’s recommendations, and went to work selecting the sites. Unfortunately, community distrust and angst arose due to keeping much of the decision-making process out of the public eye. Siting decisions are always controversial; with hope, city decisions going forward will be completed with more transparency so that our neighborhoods have confidence in our public leaders, and we have well-conceived outcomes.

Salt Lake City and Utah should continue to be national leaders in addressing homelessness. Interestingly, not every country faces this dilemma. I recently met in Singapore with officials from around the world to discuss successful community development. Singaporeans were perplexed by homelessness in the United States; their country guarantees minimum housing for all citizens.

Exceptional measures have been taken elsewhere in the U.S. In November, Los Angeles voters passed Measure HHH, committing $1.3 billion in new taxpayer dollars to provide shelter for the homeless.

Achieving success will take leadership that is straightforward and transparent. Moving forward, Salt Lake City and Utah need to prepare for unanticipated circumstances. For example, what are the contingency plans if more people need shelter? How will the neighborhoods be involved continuously so issues can be addressed as they arise?

As we celebrate Christmas and approach the new year, let’s resolve to show the world how Utah can take care of those most in need and address this challenging issue.

Ralph Becker is a former mayor of Salt Lake City.